Florida chips away at your right to know

Sun Sentinel

When it comes to government transparency, Florida is considered a national role model. But today our state’s famous Sunshine Law — actually a series of laws that guarantee your access to government meetings and records — is under attack.

With shocking impunity, government officials are blocking your right to know by charging exorbitant fees, creating excessive delays and passing an ever-growing list of exemptions for what you can find out.

In 1985, for example, Florida had about 250 exemptions to the Sunshine Law. Today, there are more than 1,100.

Last year, 12 percent of the bills passed by the Florida Legislature closed the door on access to public information, according to the First Amendment Foundation. This year, lawmakers are considering another 43 exemptions.

Almost daily, you see the headlines about politicians trying to hide what they’re doing in the course of public service.

Just last week, on a national level, we saw former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton finally acknowledge she did public business on personal emails. And after five years of trying to obtain records from her tenure as secretary, the Associated Press is now having to sue the State Department for their release.

And at a local level, we saw Coconut Creek Police Chief Michael Mann finally acknowledge that a man recently died in a Taser confrontation with his officers, a death he initially said was confidential because of the federal health care privacy law known as HIPPA.

In recent months we’ve also seen:

* Gov. Rick Scott’s staff dodge the Sunshine Law to orchestrate the ouster of Gerald Bailey, the former head of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which has led to a lawsuit by news organizations, including the Sun Sentinel.

* The Department of Corrections force employees to sign confidentiality agreements promising not to tell anyone, including lawmakers, about the problems in the state’s prisons.

* The Department of Children and Families stop posting online what caused the deaths of children under its supervision.

* Republican consultants successfully hide the “trade secret” emails they sent to influence state leaders drawing new maps for congressional districts, during a lawsuit that questioned whether voters got the “fair districts” demanded by a new state constitutional amendment.

Such secrecy matters because in a democracy, the only way citizens can hold government accountable is if they know what’s going on.

And when they think no one is watching, people can do bad things, especially when they control other people’s money.

This week, you’re going to hear a lot about “government in the sunshine” because over the past month, news organizations across Florida have participated in an audit of select state and local agencies, something we do from time to time to let government know we’re watching.

Truth be told, a lot of agencies expect this springtime Sunshine Week audit, though we no longer do it every year. More than one reporter noted that agencies are generally not so responsive or cheap when routine requests are made.

With some exception, the news was good. Most agencies responded promptly to requests for their chief executive’s calendar, expenses and emails.

But unlike his predecessors, Gov. Rick Scott still refuses to disclose his travel or expense reports because he uses his own jet and credit card. Three days after a records request was made to his office, came a reply that’s grown familiar to those who seek to review his work emails: “The search for records has been completed and no records responsive to your request were produced.”

But as with Hillary Clinton, we now know that Gov. Scott has used his private email account to conduct public business, despite earlier denials. Only after last November’s election did his lawyers finally turn over hundreds of pages of public emails from the governor’s personal account.

Unfortunately, it’s become a common tactic for politicians to delay the release of documents until the timing works for them.

Meanwhile, the costs of accessing public information continues to balloon because governments now can make you pay the reviewer’s salary and benefits to redact the information they don’t want you to see.

Government is not required to bill you for information, mind you. But aside from a small number of public servants who are truly servant leaders, most do.

Elsewhere in the paper today, you’ll read more about the Sunshine Week audit, but here’s a deeper look at what we found at four local governments tested:

* In Hollywood, we were told it would take three hours — at $33 per hour — to review a week’s worth of the mayor’s emails, no chump change. An earlier request to review three years worth of sexual assault cases was estimated to cost $756, though the fee was later waived when city officials decided to compile the information for another purpose.

* Our request for emails from State Attorney Michael Satz’s office was promptly acknowledged, but we were told it would cost $22 per hour for clerical help and $61 per hour for an attorney, a sizable fee.

* Our request to Broward County Public Schools was acknowledged promptly, though the follow through was slow. Our reporter’s experience is that it can take two months to get a cost estimate from the school district, and it’s rarely cheap. To obtain a personnel list, we were told it would cost $87. To review the completed investigation of a high school principal, $153. And for the case numbers of lawsuits against the district, $281.

* Similarly, when we requested use-of-force reports from the Fort Lauderdale Police Department, our reporter was told it was “an extremely lengthy request” and while a cost estimate couldn’t be provided, the work would be billed at $22 per hour.

It all adds up. And it’s having a chilling effect on getting information.

It’s not just the media, either. Most of those who seek information from government are everyday citizens and business owners. You’ll read more about some of their challenges later this week.

But for eight months now, the Sun Sentinel has been trying to get information from a Florida Department of Highway Safety database on cargo heists. You would think that storing information electronically would make it easier to access — and easier to redact the confidential parts. But though this database is constructed in a standard format, the state wants to charge us a cost-prohibitive fee of $8,328.

Similarly, when our reporters asked to see a sex-offender database two years ago, we were initially asked to pay $172,032, though with persistence, we got the rate waived.

And when we were looking into the remarkable racket run by the Sunrise Police Department — where undercover officers lured criminals to town with offers of discount cocaine, then used the forfeiture law to seize their cash, cars and belongings — we were told it would cost $13,000 to review the department’s drug-evidence database.

Increasingly, news organizations can’t afford the fees. Consider what happened to Jason Parsley, executive editor of the South Florida Gay News, who last year asked the Broward Sheriff’s Office for every email over five months that contained one of six derogatory terms for gays. The sheriff’s office said searching staff emails for those keywords would cost $399,000 and take four years.

Lt. Eric Caldwell told the Associated Press that BSO was not trying to be evasive. He said each employee’s email is stored on a tape and kept at a remote archive facility. To be searched, they would have to be retrieved and converted into an Outlook file.

Parsley says he’s been told it’s easier than all that, but he doesn’t have the money or time to take the matter to court. So his readers will never know if BSO staffers have used gay slurs in emails.

And so it goes.

On Sunshine Sunday 2015, we are sad to report that high fees, long delays and a never-ending list of exemptions are limiting the ability of citizens and a free press to see what government is doing.

And Florida’s famed culture of “government in the sunshine” is suffering death by a thousand cuts.

Editor’s note: Sun Sentinel Opinions Editor Rosemary O’Hara serves on the board of the First Amendment Foundation, and coordinated this year’s effort on behalf of the Florida Society of News Editors.